Many people have a link or two they wish wouldn't pop up when they Google their own names. They will appreciate the motivation of an audacious ruling the European Court of Justice handed down Monday. But the ruling could easily damage the flow of information on which the Internet depends.
The case was brought by a Spanish lawyer who wanted Google to remove links to articles legally published in 1998 by a newspaper about old tax debts. Spanish authorities agreed with him, but the country's courts asked European Union jurists for legal guidance. The result was a ruling that is vague and nearly impenetrable, leaving the details for officials, courts and private companies to fill in. But the essential principle is this: The rights of individuals to control information that concerns them "override, as a general rule, the interest of Internet users."
That logic should be reversed, particularly when public information is at issue. It is dangerous when any government demands that legitimately published material on the public record be obscured, whether to protect individuals' feelings or the reputations of those in high office. Activists, concerned citizens and all sorts of ordinary people yes, even journalists could be denied ready access to information that may seem "irrelevant" to European officials but turns out to be important in public and private life. If there is to be a general principle, it should be to treat search-engine removal requests with extreme caution. Instead, the European court has made it hard for Google to refuse them.